The Red Carpet at the Dolby Theater (via WEBN-TV on Flickr)

It seems as though the #MeToo movement has finally shaken the sleeping, liberal Hollywood elite. Following the outcry against sexual abuses perpetrated by men in power in the entertainment industry, 300 women in the business, from actors to executives, created Time’s Up to combat systemic sexual harassment in Hollywood and blue-collar working environments around the United States. So far, the newly formed coalition has a legal defense fund with a piggybank of $13 million dollars, has lobbied legislation that penalizes companies from tolerating persistent harassment, and at the 75th annual Golden Globes it made the formal request for all those attending the red carpet to wear black in an effort to stand in solidarity with those who’ve experienced sexual misconduct. Despite its good intentions, the funeral-inspired look was a rather sanitized form of dissent in which attendees and the coalition arguably failed to capitalize on its position of privilege within the mainstream. Still, the event was a captivating form of red carpet protest considering award shows are generally rather tame events.

This spotlight on Hollywood has left many wondering what the 90th ceremony of the Academy Awards might hold on Sunday. There is, in fact, a history of symbolic activism at the Oscars, which is especially compelling when you consider the ceremony’s origins.

In January 1927, a banquet was held in Los Angeles to hand out memberships to nearly 36 directors, actors, writers, producers, and technicians for an emerging organization titled the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). The ingenious master plan was devised by producer Louis B. Mayer, the West Coast chief at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Hollywood’s most influential power player. The plan, in essence, was devised to avoid Hollywood employees from unionizing.

In the 1920s, studio construction unions started to take hold, and when Mayer began construction on his private Santa Monica beach house — hiring his very own MGM craftsmen — he discovered it would be more expensive than previously planned because of the new labor agreements. Fearing a powerful labor movement in Tinseltown would cause a domino effect and lead actors, directors, and others to also form unions, the big-time producer devised a simple two-step plan. First, he would establish a makeshift trade group for mutual publicity and business purposes between the five major studios at the time (titled the Studio Basic Agreement); and second, that trade group, otherwise known as the Academy, would bestow awards. Establishing the first major consensus between studio producers and unions, the Studio Basic Agreement was a space to negotiate hours, wages, benefits, and rehash grievances, but it also sterilized a would-be revolutionary moment in Hollywood. By invoking more competition among Hollywood creatives, the plan also distracted them from rising up against their bosses. In a statement fitting for a Hollywood villain, Mayer proclaimed: “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”

The Hollywood enterprise that Mayer and company fought to uphold, however, is no longer what it was — the kingmakers have been bought out by conglomerate media companies, namely Comcast, Disney, and Time Warner, while unions have established award shows of their own within the respective Directors, Screen Actors, and Writers leagues. What’s more, the afterthought that gave birth to the awards ceremony has also periodically, and paradoxically, become a site of protest.  

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In 1973, a 26-year-old activist and actress wearing a traditional Apache dress and serene demeanor took to the Oscar stage with a lengthy speech in hand after the announcement that the best actor award went to the notably absent Marlon Brando for his performance in The Godfather. Amid jeers from the audience and in front of 85 million viewers, she politely refused to accept the golden statue on Brando’s behalf and proceeded to indict the motion picture business. This unprecedented moment in award show history was the first major showcase of dissent and one that pushed Sacheen Littlefeather’s name into the cultural zeitgeist and made her synonymous with championing Native American rights. At the height of his comeback, Brando opted to decline his second Oscar and stand in solidarity with the American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee. In a statement released the day following the ceremony, Brando reiterated, “The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile, and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children … see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.” It is considered the first major political Oscar speech that set others in motion.

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In 1977, Vanessa Redgrave took the stage as the recipient of best actress in a supporting role for Julia, playing the role of a woman murdered by the Nazi regime for her anti-fascist activism. That same year, Redgrave was involved in narrating and starring in the documentary The Palestinian, profiling the Palestine Liberation Organization, which produced a massive outcry from extreme right-wing Israeli nationalists, one of whom detonated a bomb outside a screening of the documentary and caused many others to boycott the nomination of Redgrave outside the Academy Awards. In her speech Redgrave saluted those who gave up their life in the fight against fascism in Nazi Germany and “refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums.” Boos echoed across the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, not unlike those heard at Littlefeather’s speech five years prior.

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Before announcing the winner for best writing later that night, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, best known for his satirical film Network, asserted, “I would like to say that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda.” With enthusiastic applause riddled throughout his heated commentary, he continued, “I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, nor does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

In the decades following, more have used the Oscars to champion their individual beliefs on the world stage. Michael Moore voiced his unpopular sentiments on President Bush just days after the US invaded Iraq,  while Dustin Lance Black, who won best screenplay for Milk in 2009, prophetically promised younger LGBTQ viewers “equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.” More recently, Patricia Arquette demanded equal pay for women and John Legend highlighted America’s massive incarceration problem.

But Oscar winners aren’t the only ones giving speeches.

In 1993, whilst bestowing the winner for best film editing, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins asked Washington government officials to give sanctuary to 266 HIV-positive Haitians who were being held at the Guantanamo Bay base and were barred from entering the United States. (Just three months later, a federal judge ordered the immediate shut down of the detention camp.) That same year, whilst presenting the award for art direction, Richard Gere condemned the Chinese president Xi Jinping for his human rights violations in Tibet. The two speeches provoked Oscar producer Gilbert Cates to threaten to ban the three actors from future Oscar ceremonies due to their “rude and inappropriate and unacceptable behavior.”

In recent years there have been deliberately marketed, quieter cultural boycotts. Amid the #OscarsSoWhite movement, a group of notable black entertainers, such as Hannibal Buress, Jesse Williams, and Janelle Monae, skipped the 88th annual Academy Awards to put on the #JusticeForFlint fundraising event with the goal of raising money towards those impacted by the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Ryan Coogler, co-founder of Blackout for Human Rights and writer-director of smash hit Black Panther, organized the fundraising event which was live streamed and helped raise nearly $133,000. Despite Coogler insisting that the event wasn’t a direct response to the Oscars, it was promoted as such across media channels.

And, most recently, hot on the heels of President Trump’s controversial travel ban, Iranian duo Taraneh Alidoosti and Asghar Farhadi boycotted the Academy Awards. Alidoosti, starring in The Salesman, which was nominated for best foreign film, tweeted that the executive order banning naturalized citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering United States was “racist.” Farhadi, writer-director of The Salesman said that even if the ban was overturned it was “no way acceptable” to him. The film later won the award.

The 2017 Academy Awards went down as one of the most racially inclusive in terms of its nominees in best cinematography, directing, best picture, and directing. Broadcasted less than six weeks after the presidential inauguration, the show poked fun at Trump, but ultimately reiterated the usual mantra that the arts could bring us all together by being a force of good, but didn’t weaponize the soapbox of that world stage to drive the point home. In the end, the moment that ultimately registered in everyone’s memory was when Moonlight took home best picture in what will surely go down as one of the most baffling, scandalous, and entertaining moments in live television history.

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Oscar speeches tend to take a turn toward hyper-political during moments of collective unrest. With the ongoing gun control debate, egregious stance on immigrant and refugee citizenry, rollback of LGBTQ civil rights, and the repetitive infringement on women’s autonomy, there will be plenty to draw from. Already outside the auditorium, the National Hispanic Media Coalition plans to march the day before the 90th Academy Awards over “chronic under-representation” of Latinos in Hollywood.

Harvey Weinstein may have been expelled from the Academy, but Hollywood has yet to face its past and answer for the ills it’s helped manifest. Hopefully we can see a return to boycotts and unyielding solidarity from those within the four walls of the Dolby Theater, but until then, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Rooney Elmi is founder and managing editor of SVLLY(wood), a biannual print and digital movie magazine geared toward radical cinephilia. The recipient of the 2017 New York Film Festival Critics Academy,...

One reply on “A History of Protest and Activism at the Oscars”

  1. The upcoming 90th Academy Awards show should be MORE political!
    Every single moment available to Jimmy Kimmel, should be jokes and rant against Donald Trump.
    Every single acceptance speech should be against anyone who’s not a liberal, against conservatives, against the NRA, pro LGBTQ, etc.
    I know I’m missing more ideas, but it should be way more political. I can’t wait!
    Winfrey/Clooney in 2020!

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